By Kate Marsden
This week we're off to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire to meet Alison Bartram, the owner of Heart Gallery. Alison talks us through the trials of rebuilding a business in Hebden Bridge following the Boxing Day floods, and explains why Just A Card is so important to her.
Tell us a little about you. What do you do?
Hi, my name is Alison Bartram and sometimes I feel it's easier to tell people what I don't do! In 2006, after my sister had taken her own life, I finally decided to 'seize the day' and try to educate people about where they shopped, how they shopped and who they shopped with. By supporting small independent British designer/makers and creative companies I hoped I could play a very small part in changing the high street. Heart Gallery was born out of a burning desire to offer locals and visitors to Hebden Bridge a unique place to shop all under the one roof and in the most amazing space that was once a Baptist Chapel.
What does a typical day at the gallery involve?
As a Gallery Owner I have to wear many hats in one day to be honest but that's one of the things I love the most about what I do ... and I love hats! I opened the big black doors of Heart Gallery to the unsuspecting locals and visitors of Hebden Bridge nearly 10 years ago and no two days are ever the same. A typical day however will start with a good strong coffee from my favourite little coffee shop across from me on Market Street, Cafe Solo - keeping cash circulating in the town by supporting the other businesses around me is hugely important. If I'm on the hop then I take it with me, which is usually the case! There's nearly always a package of goodies to collect from the Post Office, which also involves a good old catch up with our postie, and there's the general mail too (hopefully not all bills!). Our customers are our priority once we open at 10.30am but in amongst we have to tidy displays and keep them clean, moving them when necessary, book in new work, catch up on paperwork, keep on top of social media, photograph new pieces for our blog and put on a fresh pot of coffee of course!
Where are you based? What is your gallery like? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
Heart Gallery is a gem nestled in the heart of Hebden Bridge in a beautiful building that was once a Baptist Chapel so we have our own grounds. Market Street was, (before the Boxing Day floods) and will be again, a thriving area of the town with both sides of the street full of small independent shops and cafes. I always wanted to make British made products accessible to all and to not be a 'typical' gallery but a very carefully curated one with a strong emphasis on making my customers feel at home. I think I have achieved that but it has been an interesting journey. I soon realised that this would be a 24/7 job so 'days off' would be rare, but I don't mind that, in fact I do really live and breathe what I do. These days, more than ever, if you want to stay on top you have to work really hard, but when it's important to you then it doesn't really matter. When I do get time off it is usually spent with family, walking, eating, drinking and enjoying the moment.
Your business was severely effected by the floods in Hebden Bridge back in December, so your immediate challenges differ to those of most. Could you tell us a little about what happened? How are you getting on with rebuilding the space, and when do you plan to reopen?
The 2015 Boxing Day floods were devastating for Heart Gallery and for Hebden Bridge and every day since has brought new challenges....including a burst water pipe at the beginning of April, which meant gallons of water rushed through the property above Heart Gallery, and through our ceilings bringing two down and destroying the new 'flood shelf' we had built as part of our future flood plan going forward!
We had over 4 feet of dirty water in our beautiful building on Boxing Day, and then just as we were healing and stitching ourselves back together again we ended up with another foot of clean water in! These challenges we all could really do without but they happen and you know what, you just get on and deal with it; everyone in the town rolled up their sleeves and mucked in and all those that traveled from all over the UK to help after the Boxing Day floods were simply amazing; giving up their holidays to be there for us.
Perhaps I have true Yorkshire grit and stubbornness mixed with the drive and determination to make sure Heart Gallery survives! I am aiming to re-open for the 24th June (although this date is now a little tight after the burst water pipe gave us extra jobs to squeeze in) which is when our Arts Festival launches and I've never missed a festival so this year will be no exception. In September it is our tenth Birthday so the latter part of this year will be far better than the first 6 months! Every year in retail is an achievement you have to pat yourself on the back for but surviving 10 years and 3 floods is massive, so September will certainly be a party month for us here at Heart Gallery!
What ambitions do you have for your business over the next few years? Have the events of recent months presented any unexpected new opportunities?
Our website was badly hacked in the New Year so just when I really needed a presence it was taken away from me sadly. Because my time has been spent stitching Heart Gallery back together I have just had to take it down for now but I have found a lovely local guy I can work with (when I get a chance) who will help me design a brand spanking new one. It still won't be a selling website - this wasn't what I set out to do (although this did bite me on the bum after Boxing Day as it meant there was no income at all to fall back on!). I want people to go back to shopping how we are supposed to shop. I wouldn't dream of buying what I sell online! Visit, see it, feel it, touch it, smell it, admire it, try it on, imagine it in your home, enjoy the great customer service and go home feeling satisfied and happy. I am really looking forward to working with Neale on the website actually as after 10 years it was perhaps time for a change so I guess I should show gratitude to the hackers! Due to the new Watermark Calderdale campaign (Watermark) that was launched recently following the Boxing Day floods I am also hugely excited to be working with local artists to produce bespoke pieces exclusive to Heart Gallery that will be sold to raise funds for this fantastic campaign.
Do you have any tips for fellow small business owners and designer/makers who are reading this and may be just starting out?
I threw myself in head first after my sister died as for her there were no more tomorrows. Working for myself was something she felt I should be doing again, hence the name Heart (close to Rachel's heart), but curating a gallery was very different to running a 'punk' shop back in the eighties! My previous experience at The Yorkshire Craft Centre and my own personal journey was a starting point so always start somewhere, the rest can be built upon if you just believe in yourself. There is more support out there now however so you are never really alone. Here in Hebden Bridge we have a lovely co-working space called The Egg Factory (Egg Factory) and I became a member when they opened in 2014. This was invaluable at the beginning of this year as the support Heart Gallery got from its co-founders and its members helped to keep us sane. If there is something like this in your area then do consider joining and being part of that creative community. Do think about applying to the Design Factory (Design Factory) look on The Design Trust website for lots of pointers (The Design Trust) follow relevant people on social media such as @microbizgirl @enterpriserocks or those in your particular field - social media is perfect for helping you to connect with other small businesses/designer/makers.
Had you realised the Just A Card campaign message suggests cards as an example of a small purchase - we're about encouraging all sales as they keep businesses afloat?
Ever since I opened, and also seeing the recent growth of Totally Locally, keeping money moving about the town where I work and the area I live in has always just seemed logical, I can't understand why more people don't do this! Seeing the Just a Card campaign launch just made so much sense, and I have supported it ever since hoping that it will just become second nature to everyone to think before they buy. I would love more people to just ask themselves 'where has this product come from?' 'who has made it?' 'who is selling it for them?'. As a fine art, contemporary jewellery and craft gallery supporting local and UK designer/makers I work closely with my artists to promote them whilst also promoting Heart Gallery and Hebden Bridge....everyone benefits when a sale is made, the maker, the gallery and the town ... even if it's just a card.
How important is the Just A Card campaign message to you and your business?
This Just A Card campaign is hugely important to me, to my business and to all other small independents out there. I have championed, supported, nurtured, British designer/makers and small companies for nearly 10 years. They have a story to tell, I have a story to tell and this campaign has a story to tell ... everyone should listen!
Where did you hear about the campaign & which Social Media platforms do you use most frequently?
I first heard about Just A Card on twitter so then started following on Facebook (Sarah Hamilton's page) too and reading blogs about it when I had time to grab a cuppa and sit a while. Social Media in recent years has really started to be supportive to small businesses and is a great way to engage with others whether they are customers or small independents like myself trying to scratch a living doing what they love. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest but it is really hard to keep on top of it all, run a business and have a life! That's one of the reasons that my accounts have a little sprinkle of my own personal journey in there too ... there is a person with a story behind the account!
What do you think people can do to support Just A Card, and how will you be doing so?
Sarah (Hamilton) has worked really hard on this (how does she find time to design, print and make?) and so have all her team so it makes perfect sense to help in any way I can when I can. If more of us collaborated and realised we are all in this together, we could fight the big giants that threaten to stamp on our growth and creativity, and we will be able to keep the high street interesting, thriving and alive and kicking!